Archive | October, 2012

IH Teachers’ Online Conference – this weekend #IHTOC3

29 Oct

This weekend – or at least Friday 2nd and Saturday 3rd November – sees the third IH Teachers’ Online Conference, a collection of about 20 webinars hosted by the International House World Organisation and available to all, completely free!

Yep – open to anyone at absolutely no cost.

Worth checking out?

For more information, check out the IH TOC3 homepage.

Or you can view the Conference Timetable (via a google spreadsheet), or download the conference handbook, complete with presenter biographies and seminar abstracts.

In terms of declaring a potential conflict of interest, I should point out that I not only work for IH but that I will be presenting at the conference at 10.30am (GMT) on Saturday morning!

My session is “Keep Calm and Write On” and it’s a look at what learners who need to develop their writing skills for exams (FCE, IELTS, TOEFL etc) need to know – and a range of activities to help them.  It will be my first webinar, so if you do come along, please bear that in mind!

Looking forward to seeing you all there!


Starting a Vocabulary Box / Wordbag

8 Oct

As mentioned previously, I’m making more of a focus on vocabulary this year, and one of the things I’m going to be working with is the vocabulary box.

Now this is obviously not a new idea and it’s not even a new idea to me, I think the first time I came across this was almost exactly eight years ago in an seminar run by Bronwen Allen at IH Katowice, where she introduced the idea of wordbag cards (which is the term I’m going to use here).

Vocabulary revision and recycling is incredibly important – in “Working with Words” Gairns and Redman say that most (80%) of what we forget is forgotten within 24 hours of initial learning – clearly then it is our duty to help learners move items into long term storage and to recycle constantly.

Gairns and Redman quote Peter Russell’s “The Brain Book” as setting out the following revision schedule in order to maximise retention:

  1. a quick review five minutes after class
  2. a quick review 24 hours after class
  3. a further review one week later
  4. another review one month later
  5. a final review six months later

Obviously, as teachers, we aren’t always in a position to conduct all of these reviews with our learners, but we can help them out with the next best thing – the vocabulary box or the wordbag.

Here is an example of a wordbag card, bearing the school logo for a nice bit of additional branding….  To give you an idea of actual size, I have eight cards per piece of A4 paper.

It’s fairly straightforward – I have it down as “the chunk” to try and emphasise that words don’t always exist in isolation.  With higher levels I try to make sure that the things that get written down are indeed chunks, with lower levels I play it by ear.

One of the problems I’ve had in the past is simply starting the wordbag off.  It can be difficult for students to understand the purpose of the wordbag cards and what they are expected to do with them, you can’t always guarantee a steady stream of relevant vocabulary and it might take some time for there to be enough wordbag cards in the wordbag to actually do anything meaningful with!

So what follows is a “lesson” that I came up with this year to try and get things going.  It borrows from an idea expressed in Morgan and Rinvolucri’s classically titled “Vocabulary” – namely that we have relationships with words, we have preferences and associations with them and that making use of these relationships can help the learning process.

What you need:

three wordbag cards per participant (including the teacher), already chopped up onto separate slips of paper and preferably on different coloured paper, but that’s just because it looks pretty…

Some of your favourite vocabulary games and activities (there are some ideas given below).

What you do:

On the board draw three separate three box grids, like so (only neater):

And into the top section of each grid, write a word, collocation or short phrase.  I grade these according to level, so with my CAE group I might have “to insist on doing something”, but with my elementary group I might have “company car” .

The three words I used the other day were:


I gave the learners two minutes to work out what connected the three items.  The answer of course is that these are three of my favourite words.  They are my favourite difficult word, my favourite useful word and my favourite fun / fantastic  word.

I then asked learners if they knew what any of the words meant – if they came up with a suitable definition or expression of meaning, I put that in the second (middle) section.  But if not, I gave them a contextual sentence and wrote it in the third (bottom) section – e.g. “I ran out of credit so I had to top up my mobile this morning.”

Eventually, you get all of the boxes filled and then I check what goes into each section and label the sections with “the chunk”, “meaning” and “example sentence”.

I then asked all the learners to think of their favourite difficult, useful and fun/fantastic words and note them down.

One problem I’ve had with this stage is duplication of items, particularly if the learners are struggling to think of something suitable and overhear their colleagues coming up with a good idea.  So I’ve done this on a “first come first served” basis, making clear there should be no duplication and writing up the words the learners choose on the board next to their names.

Once everyone (or most of the class) have got their three words, I give out some wordbag cards and the learners fill them in.  For the fast finishers, the answer is simple – just give them another wordbag card and tell them to add another item to the mix!

So by the end of this stage you should have at least three times as many wordbag cards as learners and can then finish off the class by doing a number of different vocabulary based activities with the learners, using their new wordbag cards.

With any luck, by the end of the lesson, the class will understand what a wordbag card is, what should go on it and how it’s going to be used in classes.  They’ll have a basis for ongoing additions to the wordbag, plus a foundation for future revision / recycling activities at the start of end of the class – and it gives the teacher a chance to hit the ground running with the wordbag so that you don’t lose momentum while trying to build up a sufficient stock of cards in the wordbag.

And so it begins…

1 Oct

Though in actual fact there have been several starts and beginnings since the end of August – I started work again on the 3rd September, #ELTChat kicked off again on the 12th, and classes started off again on 17th September – but despite all these new beginnings, September for me has been a month of downtime.

I’ve found it very very difficult to be enthused about the start of this academic year.  It has not been a prospect that has filled me with joy, energy or happiness – but then neither do I feel despair, depression or loathing – honestly, it all just seems to be more of the same.

New classes, some the same.  New faces, some familiar.  Essentially though, it seems as though it has all just been a continuation on from last year and that nothing has really changed.

Feeling motivated yet?

yay….  !

But as October dawns, more classes have come on-stream, the timetable is filling up and it is time to start thinking more about what, if anything, I’m going to do differently this year.

The two biggest bees in my bonnet right now are vocabulary and giving learners more individual attention.  The vocabulary focus has come about largely because I have a CAE class this year and I think the biggest jump from FCE to CAE is not found in differences in how the skills are tested but in how language is presented and used – so while I say vocabulary, what I mean is “chunks”.  I’m not limiting this new obsession simply to my CAE class, it’s going to be deployed with every class I come into contact with – so expect lots more vocabulary based posts as time goes by.

The second point, giving learners more individual attention, is something that arose after last Septembers’ post on Demoralising Feedback.  I’d like to find a way of working with learners on a more personalised basis, opening up a conversation with them about their learning and what they feel is going well and what isn’t, and find ways of helping learners get where they want to go.  This sounds a bit like a mentoring / coaching approach – neither of which are things I know much about, so any guidance would be greatly appreciated.  I’ve heard a mentoring approach described as being a nice idea in theory but unworkable in practice and I can understand that the time constraints involved are hugely limiting, so if anyone has any experience of mentoring / coaching students, please let me know!

I don’t feel it’s right to feel so stuck in the doldrums this early on in the school year and although it feels as though everything’s been coming along in dribs and drabs and the start has been a fitful one, it’s probably time to stop with all that and just get on with things.  It’s like I said to my daughter the other day:  “Sweetheart, you can lie on the floor feeling sorry for yourself if you want to or you can come and do something fun, it’s your choice.”

Time, I think, to go and do something fun…